If you think love is a battlefield, try finding something healthy and delicious on a restaurant menu. Most menus are full of caloric land mines determined to whet your appetite and derail your diet. The struggle is real, but it’s not impossible.
That’s why we called on top nutrition experts to recommend the healthiest options they’d eat themselves at some of the nation’s most popular restaurants. These healthy eating experts also share practical tips for choosing better-for-you and clean-eating dishes at any restaurant.
What to Order at Restaurants — and What to Watch Out For
To start, Ruth Frechman, a registered dietitian, nutritionist, and author of The Food Is My Friend Diet, reminds dieting diners to look on the bright side: “All foods can fit, meaning that it’s more about balance, variety, and moderation,” she says.
If you want to know the calories and macronutrients in your food, Frechman suggests sticking with names you know. Chain restaurants are required by law to provide calorie counts and other nutritional information, so you can make informed decisions about what to order.
No matter where you go, you’ll want to know which menu items to avoid — and which are code for healthier fare. Fried foods, creamy sauces, and liquid calories (sorry, alcohol calories count) are always going to be heavier, while healthier items will be those labeled “steamed,” “grilled,” or “roasted.”
Armed with this info, you’re ready for your next dinner date. Here, the experts share their top choices at your favorite chain restaurants. (*nutritional information is provided when available.)
[For reference, the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day and less than 10 percent of calories per day from saturated fat.]
What to Order at Panera
Elizabeth Shaw, M.S., R.D.N., recommends the Greek Salad (400 calories, 36 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 13 g carbohydrates, 5 g protein, 1,010 mg sodium) with added chicken for a punch of protein.
“They made the switch to antibiotic-free chicken back in 2004, and — seriously — I can’t think of another restaurant that has a better chicken breast on their menu,” says Shaw, who blogs at Shaw’s Simple Swaps. “By adding this to your salad, you will feel more satiated than just having the salad solo.”
What does Panera’s nutritionist eat at Panera? Katie Bengston, M.S., R.D.N., L.D., is Panera’s Nutrition Manager says her go-to breakfast is the fiber-packed Steel Cut Oatmeal with Strawberries and Pecans (340 calories, 14 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 51 g carbohydrates, 6 g protein, 160 mg sodium).
Pro tip: Bengston shares how to hack the Panera menu to suit your dietary preferences: “If you want to modify an order or create something not on the menu, just ask, or customize using our in-store kiosks, app, or when ordering online.” The online Eat Well, Your Way menus show which items are vegetarian, vegan, gluten-conscious, sodium-conscious, and protein rich.
What to Order at Chipotle
Cynthia Sass, M.P.H., R.D., has a go-to meal every time she travels: It’s a salad from Chipotle — hold the dressing — made with romaine, fajita veggies, black beans, mild salsa, and guacamole (415 calories, 23.5 g fat, 3.5 g saturated fat, 38 g carbohydrates, 12 g protein, 1,285 mg sodium).
Sass likes that it’s “loaded with veggies, provides a healthy balance of carbs, protein, and fat, and is fiber-packed.” Sass, the author of Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches With Pulses — The New Superfood, loves that it also provides a serving of pulses, which have been shown to boost fullness and delay the return of hunger, she says.
Pro tip: Check out Chipotle’s nutrition calculator, which allows you to see how slight changes to your order can affect your meal. For example, ditching the dressing on a salad can save you 270 calories.
What to Order at Starbucks
Once a coffee-centric spot, Starbucks is now solidly in the food game. Since there’s one on almost every block, it’s a convenient place to grab a bite.
Jenna Braddock, R.D., of Make Healthy Easy, reaches for either the Protein Bistro Box: a hard-boiled egg, apple slices, grapes, white cheddar cheese, and multigrain bread with peanut butter (460 calories, 24 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 40 g carbohydrates, 23 g protein, 530 mg sodium). Or the BBQ Chicken Bistro Box, which comes with a Power Slaw, made with broccoli, kohlrabi, carrots, beets, brussels sprouts, kale, and radicchio in a yogurt-lime dressing, plus apple slices and carrots. (420 calories, 16 g fat, 4.5 g saturated fat, 49 g carbohydrates, 22 g protein, 930 mg sodium).
Braddock, a sports nutritionist, likes how these options offer a balanced meal, anchored in lean protein with a side of fruit and vegetables. However, “while there is no problem with having a delicious pastry and large mocha every once in a while, I would not qualify this as the best breakfast option to power you through your day,” she adds.
What to Order at The Cheesecake Factory
“Oh, Cheesecake Factory,” sighs Abby Langer, R.D., owner of Abby Langer Nutrition in Toronto, Canada. “It’s notorious for having extremely caloric offerings.” Fortunately, she’s found a few options on the chain’s lower-calorie “SkinnyLicious” menu that features dishes with 590 calories or less (unfortunately, they don’t share info about macros).
From this menu, Langer recommends the Shrimp Summer Rolls — but get them without the vermicelli inside — plus a grilled artichoke. She also recommends the Beets with Goat Cheese (easy on the cheese) with added chicken or the Chicken Lettuce Wrap Tacos. But she warns against the salads from the regular menu. Most of the meal-size salads are “chock-full of calories.” The Seared Tuna Tataki Salad is probably your best bet, but get the dressing on the side.
Pro tip: Her final note of wisdom? “Stay away from the cheesecake unless you split it with four people.”
What to Order at McDonald’s
If you can resist the fries, there are some healthy options at McDonald’s. Vandana Sheth, R.D.N., C.D.E., owner of VandanaSheth.com, opts for the Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad (350 calories, 12 g fat, 4.5 g saturated fat, 27 g carbohydrates, 37 g protein, 1,070 mg sodium) with a medium McCafé Latte made with nonfat milk (120 calories, 0 g fat, 18 g carbohydrates, 12 g protein, 135 mg sodium).
Sheth likes this meal because it’s colorful, flavorful, and satisfying. “It would help me meet my target of enjoying a lot of veggies, while still meeting my carb and protein needs,” she says. “I would not use all the dressing provided with the salad and could therefore cut back on the overall calorie and fat,” Sheth adds.
What to Order at P.F. Chang’s
Ginger Hultin, M.S., R.D.N., says there are lots of good options at P.F. Chang’s. While portions are large, Hultin gets around that by taking home leftovers for another day or ordering off the kids menu.
“I’ll stop by P.F. Chang’s if I’m out running errands or at a mall because it does have healthy dishes — if you know what to order,” she says. Hultin, a vegetarian, likes to start with the edamame with kosher salt (400 calories, 17 g fat, 2.5 g saturated fat, 25 g carbohydrates, 37 g protein, 1,960 mg sodium). “This is a perfect appetizer to share with friends,” says the Seattle-based dietitian who blogs at ChampagneNutrition.com. Note: It’s high in sodium, so ask for the salt on the side.
If you want to move to soup next, be careful, says Hultin. “The difference in calories between a cup and a bowl is huge — four to seven times more calories depending on the soup. Always choose the cup.” A cup of the egg drop soup has 40 calories, 1.5 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 6 g carbohydrates, 1 g protein, 450 mg sodium.
Hultin’s go-to main dish is the steamed Buddha’s Feast (250 calories, 4 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 32 g carbohydrates, 26 g protein, 300 mg sodium) with a side of brown rice (190 calories: 0 g fat, 40 g carbohydrates, 4 g protein, 0 mg sodium).
Pro tip: When it comes to dessert, she recommends skipping it altogether here, as desserts range as high as 1,500 calories (practically a whole day’s worth of calories) and 36 grams of saturated fat (180 percent of the daily value).
What to Order at Applebee’s
Sharon Palmer, R.D.N., who blogs at SharonPalmer.com, says Applebee’s is a welcome sight on the road when most of what’s around are “greasy diners and fast-food drive-thrus, with few vegetables on the menu.”
Palmer recommends ordering from the Lighter Fare menu:
- Thai Shrimp Salad without shrimp: Edamame, almonds, and a flavorful sauce. Even with shrimp, it is listed at 370 calories, 18 g fat, 2.5 g saturated fat, 31 g carbohydrates, 23 g protein, and 1,670 mg sodium.
- Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad: Corn, black beans, and greens (though she orders sans chicken, the lunch portion is 530 calories, 33 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 33 g carbohydrates, 27 g protein, 1,810 mg sodium with chicken).
- Fire-Grilled Veggies side dish (160 calories, 13 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 11 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 570 mg sodium) if you want an extra serving of vegetables. “The thing I like best about these options is that you can get some fresh greens and crisp vegetables into your meal,” she says.
What to Order at IHOP
At IHOP, LeeAnn Weintraub, M.P.H., R.D., steers clear of the signature pancake dishes. Instead, the Los Angeles-based dietitian recommends opting for the Egg White Vegetable Omelette with fruit. “You can even add avocado to this meal and keep it under 500 calories,” she says. Plus, with 30 grams of protein, 30 grams of carbs, and 11 grams of fiber (plus 460 calories, 27 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, and 795 mg sodium), it’s a balanced meal.
If you’re not in the mood for breakfast, Weintraub says to avoid the high-calorie salads — with dressing, they all have over 1,000 calories. Instead, try these options:
- Grilled chicken sandwich (690 calories, 37 g fat, 13 g saturated fat, 43 g carbohydrates, 46 g protein, 1,900 mg sodium)
- Minestrone soup (150 calories, 2.5 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 27 g carbohydrates, 5 g protein, 1,130 mg sodium), and house salad with reduced-fat Italian dressing (40 calories, 1 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 6 g carbohydrates, 1 g protein, 125 mg sodium).
Pro tip: Check out the 55+ menu, which offers smaller portion sizes at lower prices for senior citizens.
What to Order at Olive Garden
Olive Garden is famous for their endless breadsticks and salad, but it may be wise to opt for just their never-ending salads (dressing on the side).
“At Olive Garden, I recommend the pasta primavera in marinara sauce, as there’s typically a lot of veggies,” says Vicki Shanta Retelny, R.D.N., who blogs at SimpleCravingsRealFood.com. Try it with a half-order of grilled fish or chicken breast for a boost of lean protein. Grilled chicken with pasta has 630 calories, 16.5 g fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 74 g carbohydrates, 47 g protein, 960 mg sodium.
Her other picks are lighter pasta and seafood dishes in tomato-based sauces:
- Chicken Piccata (350 calories, 21 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 11 g carbohydrates, 33 g protein, 1,230 mg sodium)
- Tilapia Piccata (420 calories, 22 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 11 g carbohydrates, 46 g protein, 1,210 mg sodium)
- Linguine di Mare (570 calories, 16 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 64 g carbohydrates, 44 g protein, 1,450 mg sodium)
Garlic Mussels Marinara (510 calories, 25 g fat, 4.5 g saturated fat, 41 g carbohydrates, 30 g protein, 1,360 mg sodium), which are lighter pasta and seafood dishes in tomato-based sauces. Retelny’s off-menu tips: Order extra steamed veggies to add to your pasta or a side salad to get a healthy dose of veggies with your meal, and ask for cheese on the side so that you can sprinkle it on yourself.
Pro tip: Olive Garden offers a create-your-own pasta bowl, which means you can build a sensible dish with veggies, healthy seafood, and lighter tomato-based sauces.
What to Order at Outback Steakhouse
Outback Steakhouse offers an Under 600 Calorie menu, a Kids Live Well menu, and a nutrition calculator that you can peruse online before dining.
The signature Joey Sirloin Medallions and Joey Grilled Chicken “on the Barbie” can be paired with steamed broccoli for a healthy balanced meal with reasonable portions (sirloin and broccoli has 280 calories, 11.5 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 13 g carbohydrates, 36 g protein, 255 mg sodium; chicken and broccoli has 230 calories, 4 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 13 g carbohydrates, 37 g protein, 245 mg sodium).
Off the Under 600 Calorie menu, one of the best bets will be the Grilled Salmon with Seasonal Mixed Vegetables (550 calories, 35 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 20 g carbohydrates, 43 g protein, 610 mg sodium).
What to Order at Cracker Barrel
While Cracker Barrel isn’t overflowing with healthy options, you can cobble together a reasonable meal between chicken and seafood for the protein plus vegetable sides.
The catfish runs 120 calories (5 g fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 17 g protein, 1 g carbohydrates, 300 mg sodium). A side of green beans will run 60 calories (2.5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 1 g protein, 7 g carbohydrates, 310 mg sodium), while turnip greens are 100 calories (3.5 g fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 6 g carbohydrates, 10 g protein, 370 mg sodium).
The chicken dishes tend to be higher in sodium, but the best of the bunch are:
Chicken Tenders (170 calories, 4.5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 27 g protein, 5 g carbohydrates, 640 mg sodium), with the Chicken n’ Dumplins Country Dinner Plate trailing behind because of its sodium levels (270 calories, 6 g fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 29 g carbohydrates, 27 g protein, 1,520 mg sodium).
It is possible to eat relatively healthy when you eat out, but there’s no substitution for cooking at home, where you control what ingredients (and how much) are going into your meals.
But with some common-sense strategies — choosing dishes with healthier preparations (grilled, steamed, baked), watching portion sizes, and ordering meals with sauces and dressings on the side (or without ) — you can still enjoy the occasional meal out without abandoning your healthy eating plan completely.